Walking back to happiness

By Gareth Renowden 28/09/2010

This is a guest post by Tom Bennion of stopflying.org, the first in a series in which he explores why he believes giving up flying is not only possible, but essential.

I am a 46 year old lawyer, running a small practice specialising in environment law. I also teach. I am married, with three small children. Eighteen months ago, I decided to give up flying. Here’s why.

I believe that the idea of voluntary drastic reductions in personal air travel is a fault line issue in the climate change debate. By this I mean that when I suggest to friends who are concerned about climate change that they limit their air travel to essential trips only, because that is easily the greatest source of personal carbon emissions, I am invariably met with arguments that would not look out of place on Anthony Watts’ blog or at www.lomborg.com. These include:

  • globally, flying accounts for only a few percent of emissions, so why bother
  • per kilometre, emissions are about the same as a family car
  • offsets are possible 
  • biofuels are coming
  • I am taking other (invariably much less effective) measures such as changing lightbulbs
  • I am (now) very worried about the impact on tourism of x country if I do not fly
  • you are making me feel guilty – stop it
  • you want to take us back to the middle ages – stop it
  • China and coal are the big problems. What we do as individuals doesnt really count.

The arguments are all deeply flawed. I will provide my thoughts to those matters in a subsequent post. In this post I want to focus on what I think are the underlying reasons for these responses.

Flying is far and away the highest source of personal emissions. Yet they are some of the most easily reduced emissions. Flying to a holiday in Fiji or Europe, at 30,000 feet while sipping drinks, comes well down in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Consider the impact of the Icelandic volcano earlier this year. The closure of Europe’s airspace badly affected some businesses, but in the main it stranded a lot of holiday makers. 

It stands to reason then, that this would be the first place concerned individuals would cut their emissions. Cutting out all non-essential flights is a no-brainer. But generally, they don’t. A number of commentators have pointed this out. George Marshall has written about climate scientists taking high carbon holidays.

To give a personal example. A colleague who does important work in the climate area and tells me “we are stuffed”, just returned from what he happily told me was a ‘high carbon’ holiday. Why this odd disjunction between thinking and action when to comes to flying?

I believe that the central problem is the fact that flying is bound up with our current identity – the feeling of freedom to go and be anywhere on the globe at short notice. That knowledge shapes how we view the world and our place in it. And it is tough changing your world view in such a dramatic way. In deciding to strictly limit flying, you have to radically alter your view of the future. There is some personal hardship. But the main impact is psychological. You have to change how you see yourself, and your future, and the future you might have imagined for your children. 

That is why it is embarrassing to tell people you no longer fly because of concern about climate change. And that is also why the people you tell often get embarrassed. Some feel personally affronted, viewing it as a challenge to their world view (as compared to, for example, the mild response you get when you tell someone you are vegetarian). In the face of that sort of social pressure, science and logic don’t stand a chance.

My reasons for stopping flying have been two-fold:

  • finally appreciating at a gut level that the future will be quite difficult for my children;
  • finding out that CO2 emissions are persistent in the atmosphere and warm over an extraordinarily long time (around 1000 years) — so every emission saved today counts.

I also realised that there are worse things than social embarrassment. And that fear of embarrassment and upsetting others would be a silly reason for refraining from taking action for my children and seeing the planet warm by 4 degrees. I liken it to the reaction any parent would have if they saw an unsafe pedestrian crossing near their child’s school. You don’t wait for others to act, and you don’t keep quiet about the danger.

Making this change means you start to look at very practical schemes for reducing emissions. Top of my wish list is a revived overnight sleeper train service between Auckland and Wellington. Easily achieved, it would allow business trips to be made within workday timeframes not too different from flying (currently I use the overnight bus — but you have to be good at cat-napping).

There are unexpected benefits, dinner with my elderly parents in Hamilton while I wait for the 10pm bus, better quality meetings with clients — since there is no rush to catch that 3pm flight to Wellington.

Why couldn’t I have my brother, who lives in Dublin, sitting virtually on my sofa, enjoying a live test match?

Making this change also means that you ask for technologies that go beyond crude retrofitting of existing systems. It seems to me that we could do a lot more in the area of videoconferencing, perhaps with some holograms thrown in. Gaming technology is moving in this direction. Why couldn’t I have my brother, who lives in Dublin, sitting virtually on my sofa, enjoying a live test match? And if I really need to travel to Dublin, is the Chinese idea of a 2-3 days journey by fast train (powered by renewable energy) the way to go? When you start those discussions, transporting large numbers of people around the world at 30,000 feet in jet aircraft burning kerosene starts to look like old technology.

One argument often made to me is that this idea puts people offside. It scares them. It splits the climate change message. I reject that. People are canny. If climate scientists, politicians and the like don’t appear to be taking a relatively easy and fairly obvious measure to reduce emissions, people figure that there is no reason why they should act. People want to know, are those shouting loudest about climate change putting any real skin in the game? 

George Marshall puts it well:

Imagine that we focus our efforts on generating a socially held belief. What would change in the way we present climate science?

Well, for one thing we would become far more concerned about the communicators and their perceived trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is an elusive and complex bundle of qualities: authority and expertise are among them. But so too are less tangible qualities: honesty, confidence, charm, humour, outspokenness. The tiny network of maverick self-promoting skeptics play this game well — which is one of the reasons why they exercise such disproportionate influence over public opinion.

I have been surprised how many of my peers and even strangers who have heard about my initiative want to know more. ’You really think its that serious?’, is a common question. My intention is that people, on their next flight, at the back of their minds, will remember that some people they know aren’t flying anymore because of climate change. The seeds for change are planted.

My intuition is that, because this is a fault line issue, it really wouldn’t take more than a few high profile institutions (climate institutes at universities?) and individuals (academics, politicians, film/pop stars) to declare that their flying days are over, and we would have a whole new debate about urgency, and what the government needs to do about reducing emissions.

The last reason why I think it makes good sense to have a stop flying movement is because our government suspects that we all want to talk climate change, but will vote them out if they institute the CO2 reduction measures which are now urgently required. But people who have stopped flying are sending the message “we have the understanding, independence and resilience to deal with this. What shall we do next?”

Tom Bennion

[Helen Shapiro]